The search for our identity: Are we 100% South African?

2013-09-11 10:00

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Closing our racial, gender and ethnic gaps has become critical.

It’s one thing to display a bumper sticker reading “100% Xhosa” on your car, says former Constitutional Court Justice Yvonne Mokgoro, but what about also declaring yourself “101% or 200% South African”?

Mokgoro is an “informal leader” of the 65 social-cohesion advocates President Jacob Zuma appointed last year to lead civil society initiatives to bring South Africans together.

These advocates are a group of people from all walks of life who work without pay, and include lawyer George Bizos, businessman Sandile Zungu and social activist Yusuf Abramjee.

Citing Chapter 9 of the Constitution, which outlaws unfair discrimination and declares people equal before the law, Mokgoro says there is a need to close the gaps – racial, gender, social origins and knowledge – that divide society “and create one people”. “It’s not going to be easy. We have grappled with that since 1994.

“The need for nation-building and social cohesion has become so much more critical 20 years into our democracy. The questions we have to ask ourselves are: What am I doing as an individual? What is my family doing? What is my community doing? What is government doing? And how can we best serve the cause of nation-building?”

As a jurist and former professor who retired from the Bench in 2009, Mokgoro has been promoting ideas of social cohesion among judges and academics.

She advances ideas of diversity in her work as a member of the SA Judicial Education Institute’s council. Currently, she’s helping develop a curriculum for judges.

She also sits on the committee that considers applications from aspirant judges.

“We can build a diverse Bench and that is also an aspect of social cohesion. It (the committee) might not initially have been created as a factor for social cohesion, but my involvement in it has been strengthened by my appointment as an advocate for social cohesion.”

She says she would like to reach more universities to encourage the idea of voluntarism – or “letsema”, as she refers to it in Setswana – among law students “to close the access-to-justice gap within communities”.

The government’s 2012 Development Indicators report suggests that the number of people who regard themselves as South Africans today is almost the same as what it was in 2004 – around 52%.

Even though the number of people who identify on the basis of ethnicity has declined from 13.6% to about 4.1%, there are lots of cars bearing stickers that identify drivers as “100% Tswana” or “100% Xhosa”.

Mokgoro says while the practice should not be discouraged, the manufacturers of such stickers should be encouraged to add “and 101% or 200% South African” to emphasise a common identity.

“Your social identity is very important to build you as a person. It is equivalent to saying you have to clean your house before you clean somebody else’s house. You have to take pride in where you are coming from, but that should not become a basis for prejudice against others.

“We all have to take pride in where we come from because that is the basis for our identity. We are a diverse society, but there must be a common consciousness. South Africans are not just Tswanas, Xhosas, Afrikaners or Greeks. All of us together make South Africa and it is the South African consciousness we want to create. Not a Tswana nation, a Zulu nation or a Xhosa nation.”

She believes that trying to understand each other’s culture and heritage is a step towards becoming South African and embracing those cultures should not be seen as a way of shunning our national identity.

Her own family does this by example, she explains, and her young grandchild is encouraged to speak both Setswana and English.

The Development Indicators report suggests that since 2006, there’s been a steady decline in the number of people who see a happy future for all races.

But Mokgoro reckons race relations will never get worse than they were pre-1994. Still, she says, the decline is something she and her fellow social-cohesion advocates need to address.

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